How to Get Rich as an Employee

I was three months into my new job as managing editor for a start-up newsletter business in South Florida, and I was nervous. With good reason. I was 32, and most of the writers reporting to me were at least twice my age. I needed to quickly develop my management skills, so I enrolled in an executive training program at a local chapter of the Dale Carnegie Institute.

It was a 14-week program. Each week, we’d read a chapter of Carnegie’s famous book, How to Win Friends and Influence People. Then we’d come to class prepared to stand before our classmates and tell them, in five minutes or less, just how we’re incorporating that information into our business lives.

The first week was about remembering names. I was never good at that, but Carnegie had some useful techniques that I remember to this day.

The second week was about setting goals. Carnegie said that most people fail to accomplish much in life because they don’t set goals.

But, he said, there are also some people who fail to achieve success because they have too many goals.

Our instructor warned us that anyone with that problem would have trouble with our next challenge…

Our next challenge was to list all our goals, narrow them down to 10, narrow them further to three, and then finally select one—and one only—as the sole goal we would focus on for the next 12 weeks.

I had no trouble listing dozens of goals, and relatively little trouble narrowing that long list down to 10. Narrowing it down to three, though, was tough. It took me six days of arguing with myself. The three goals I ended up with were to be a writer, to be a teacher, and to be a rich guy.

But then I had to select one of them as my primary goal, and I just couldn’t do it. It was crazy. I knew that if I focused on just one goal, I would achieve it—but I didn’t want to give any of them up!

I was still stymied when I stepped up to the podium the next evening. I was prepared to tell my classmates that I had failed the challenge.

But as I picked up the microphone, I knew what I had to do. “I’m going for the money!” I said to myself. Because I realized that once I achieved that goal, I would have the freedom to pursue all of my other goals.

So that’s what I did. I told my classmates that the goal I would be focusing on was to get rich. And what a difference that made!

I didn’t stop to ask myself, “How are you going to get rich?” Knowing what my goal was, I woke up the next day raring to go. I couldn’t wait to get to the office. In fact, I arrived an hour earlier than I normally did. And from that moment on, I looked at almost everything I did in terms of how it would affect my chances of getting rich.

I realized almost immediately, for example, that the time I’d been spending on trying to improve the literary quality of our newsletters had been foolishly spent. If I wanted to get big salary increases, I would have to figure out how to make our newsletters more profitable. So my interest in grammar and punctuation took a nosedive, while my interest in sales and marketing soared.

Having one goal to guide me made everything easier. Questions that would have puzzled me before were suddenly easy to answer. Decisions that would have taken days or weeks to make were made in minutes. Problems that used to be vexing had simple solutions.

From Ordinary to Extraordinary

Within weeks, I went from being a modestly good employee to a rising star. I revamped our editorial products, making them easier to read and easier to sell. I fired two writers that I should have fired weeks earlier and replaced them with up-and-comers. I spent a lot of time reading our marketing materials and trying to understand how newsletters were sold. I even tried my hand at writing advertising copy.

A few months later, my boss called me into his office to tell me how happy he was with what I had been doing—and announced that he was doubling my salary.

It was an extremely generous offer. But I told him that, as much as I appreciated it, it wasn’t enough.

He was flabbergasted. “Not enough?” he shouted. “I just doubled your salary!”

“You see,” I told him, “I’ve decided to become rich. And I have an idea I’ve been working on that I think will convince you to give me even more money.”

I then handed him a package. It contained my idea for a new investment advisory product—all the details—including a sales letter.

He stared at the package.

“And how, exactly, is this going to make you rich?” he asked.

“It’s a great product,” I said. “It will make money for you. And if you cut me in on the profits…” 

He shoved the package into a drawer and kicked me out of his office.

The next day, he called me back in.

“You’re right,” he said. “You’ve come up with a great idea.” He told me he thought what I had come up with was worth about $250,000!

“And if you want a stake in it,” he continued, “I’ll cut you in at 10%…”

I smiled.

“But… You have to come up with $25,000—10% of the capitalization.”

I frowned.

I wasn’t quite sure what that meant. It seemed odd to me that he would value my idea so highly and then ask me to pay for 10% of it. But this was a take-it-or-leave-it offer, so I agreed.

And then I realized I didn’t have any money. So I did something I would have never done before. I asked him to lend me the $25,000. And he agreed.

(Later, after I’d learned something about business and investing, I realized he was teaching me a valuable lesson about the value of money. Ideas are wonderful, but capital is invaluable.)

So that’s how my journey from being an ordinary employee to a valuable employee to an invaluable employee began.

I was $25,000 in debt, but I had a chance—a reasonable chance—to change my fortunes for good.

From Money Earner to Money Maker

My idea was to create a service for people who wanted to become rich. It would provide stock tips, but it would also provide tax saving and avoidance strategies, international investment opportunities, and a whole lot more.

It wasn’t an especially clever idea, but it hadn’t been done before. My boss/partner and I worked together, adding extra benefits and refining the sales copy. Finally, after several months, it was ready. We printed up 50,000 pieces and put them into the mail.

It was a huge success!

It was also the beginning of my very intense, 10-year apprenticeship in the world of making money.

We expanded into specialized financial publications, then into consumer magazines, and finally into marketing a wide range of merchandise, including televisions, radios, luggage, watches, and jewelry.

My boss/partner also introduced me to the idea of investing in businesses that supported our primary business—a typesetting company, a letter shop, a printing operation, and an advertising agency.

What I Learned on the Road to Riches

If you are an employee now and are wondering about the feasibility of getting rich… you can do it. But as an employee, there is really only one way to get rich…

You must first make your boss richer. And if he has a boss, you must make him richer, as well. Your ultimate goal is to make the owner of the company much richer—and the only way to do that is to make the company much more profitable.

So how do you do that?

You start from where you are and take small, sensible steps in the right direction. You begin with the skills and knowledge you currently have and add the skills and knowledge you lack.

In other words, you begin as an ordinary employee and become an extraordinary employee. And after you’ve accomplished that, you become an invaluable employee.

But there is a caveat: You must be working for the right kind of company—a company that is ready and able to give you the opportunity to help it grow.

Put differently, the road to riches as an employee is a journey of three legs.

  1. First, you must find a job with the right company.
  2. Then, you must become a valuable employee.
  3. And finally, you must become an invaluable employee.

Finding the Right Company

There are three kinds of businesses that can provide the environment you are looking for:

Big corporations 

Big corporations will pay you serious money if you are at the top of their food chain. A senior vice president of a billion-dollar business can easily make $350,000-750,000.

But if you like the idea of working for a big company, be prepared. You will be competing with hundreds of very smart, very well connected, hardworking people. You will have to be not just extremely good at your job, but also politically shrewd. Because all big companies suffer from some amount of corporate politics. And even if you have what it takes to rise to the top, it will likely take 10-20 years.

Financial service businesses 

Brokerages, banks, and insurance companies are happy to pay their best people $250,000-1 million or more—if they can perform. Career paths at this level include portfolio managers, marketers, and salespeople.

But becoming a top-notch portfolio manager is not easy. It takes years of hard work and a degree of luck. The same can be said for the very best marketers, the people responsible for devising strategies to bring in new customers. And to become a top salesperson, you have to be very good and very aggressive. You may even have to put aside your scruples about treating your customers right.

Small companies with big potential

This was my choice as a young man, and I don’t regret it. Starting out with a small company, especially if you are young, gives you a fast track to big money that you won’t get in a big corporate environment. It also gives you several ways to become a big moneymaker without sacrificing your principles.

Becoming a Valuable Employee

Whatever type of company you choose, your journey to wealth begins by establishing yourself as a valuable employee.

Most employees go through their lives working for businesses they care nothing much about, dealing with problems they’d rather not face, and getting paid very ordinary wages. They would like to earn more. They may even be willing to do more. But their ambitions are sporadic and fleeting. Most of the time, they are simply showing up.

Such employees are never going to get substantial raises. They can expect their salary to rise very slowly and very gradually. From 1984-2014, for example, the average salary rose by around 3.5%, according to the Average Wage Index.

But a valuable employee could easily get twice that. And at 7% per year, a $50,000 salary turns into about $98,000 in 10 years, $193,000 in 20 years, and $380,000 in 30 years.

There are four ways to distinguish yourself as an employee and see your compensation accelerate at a faster pace:

1. Work longer hours.

Don’t fall for that goofy idea that “good employees get their work done between nine and five.” If you want your bosses to notice you as someone who is willing to do more, begin by working longer hours.

How many extra hours?

An hour per day is good. Two hours is better. If you can do a little work at home on weekends, that’s not bad either.

If at all possible, put in your extra hours at the beginning of the day. Getting to work early is a common virtue of almost all successful people. There is something about getting in earlier than everyone else that seems nobler, smarter, or just plain more industrious than working late.

In How to Become CEO, Jeffrey J. Fox puts it this way: “Arriving to work late signals you don’t like your job very much. Even if you prefer to come in late and stay late, staying late sends the signal that you can’t keep up or your personal life is poor.”

You are working more hours for three reasons. You want to do more than your peers. You want to learn more than your peers. And you want to be sure that your bosses—the people who will eventually promote you—know how extraordinary you are.

2. Develop a distinctly positive and infectiously enthusiastic attitude. 

Nobody likes a sourpuss—even if the sourpuss is a genius. Become the person who arrives at work with energy, greets his coworkers warmly, volunteers for assignments enthusiastically, and seems very happy with his career.

3. Say “Yes!”

Much has been written about the virtues of saying no. But if you want your boss to support your efforts to move up in the company, you have to support him by making his job easier. You do this by saying yes. By saying yes if he asks you for a favor… by saying yes to taking on that extra job… and even by saying yes when you mean no. (There is a certain skill in saying yes when you mean no, but that’s a topic for another essay.)

4. Advertise your accomplishments.

It’s not enough to be positive, to say yes, and to work more hours. In order to make sure the extra efforts you’re making are noticed, you have to advertise them. Doing a good job of self-promotion (without coming off as a braggart) means that you always give others some of the credit for your accomplishments.

Becoming an Invaluable Employee

Valuable employees earn good salaries. But invaluable employees earn great salaries.

You become an invaluable employee by embracing a simple truth: The lifeblood of a business is profits. So if you can help increase your company’s profits, you will be rewarded.

There are only a limited number of ways to make a business more profitable. You can help create or improve your company’s products. You can help market those products to new and existing customers. You can help manage profits by decreasing costs and raising margins.

How do you get yourself into sales, marketing, product creation, or profit management?

Identify the people in your company who are already doing those jobs. (They are almost certainly the ones who make the most money.) Tell them you’re interested in learning more about their end of the business, and offer to help them out in your free time.

As you learn more, you will be able to do more. And your contributions to the business can gradually shift in the direction of creating profits.

What You Can Do, Starting Today, to Make It Happen

Being an ordinary employee will give you an ordinary life. But becoming an extraordinary employee will give you an entirely richer future.

If you are interested in this idea of becoming rich as an employee, I’ll be providing more specific advice in future issues. Meanwhile, there are some steps you should begin taking right now.

Recognize every business interaction as an opportunity to advance your career. Come into work earlier. Set aside the first half-hour of your day to learning more about how the business works. Greet your boss and fellow employees with enthusiasm. Meet your deadlines. Deliver more than you promise. Volunteer.

And do it all with the goal of becoming thought of—by those who count—as invaluable. It might feel a bit artificial at first, but it will soon feel true because it will be true. And you will be on the fast track to making the big bucks.

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